Interview Hindi

Nitin Desai: Want to open India’s first filmi world with digital experience

The production designer, who celebrates his 52nd birthday today (6 August), revealed his ambitious plans for his passion project, ND Studios, in an exclusive interview with

Courtesy: Nitin Desai

Sonal Pandya

Away from the hustle and bustle of busy Mumbai, ND Studios, a film and television production studio in Karjat, Maharashtra, has become the location where several films like Kick (2014) and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015) have been filmed. The man behind this dream, Nitin Chandrakant Desai, rose from humble beginnings as an assistant art director and rose up the ranks to become a production designer of note, wooed by both Hollywood and the Indian film industry.

In an interview with at his busy Powai office, Desai divulged his intentions for the studio which he first launched in 2005. With 37 years of experience and expertise behind him, he spoke about how he got the germ of an idea to begin his own studio, his plans to encourage and educate youngsters about the film industry and his grand ideas for the future of ND Studios.

A view of ND Studios (Courtesy: Nitin Desai)

Way back in the early 2000s, when Desai was working on Devdas (2002), PC Alexander [then governor of Maharashtra] came to visit the set. He was shocked to find out that the beautiful set pieces were going to demolished after the shoot. Desai recalled the governor saying, “You put so much effort and money, why do you have to dismantle? See Universal Studios, Warner Bros, [and] Disneyland."

Indeed, those iconic film studios had been playing on Desai’s mind for a long time. He had gone to USA to film Jabbar Patel’s Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000) and after shooting hours he would visit these locations. Sets and props from films are not discarded but preserved instead. The studios have guided tours that educate the public on the art of moviemaking.

Desai won his first National award for Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000).
Courtesy: Nitin Desai

Furthermore, in 2003, director Oliver Stone came to India to collaborate with Nitin Desai on a project. He accompanied Stone to several cities around India and later toured Mumbai's studios. Desai recalled how there was no proper government official who came and the tour was also not up to the mark.  

“They wasted one and half hour sitting and chatting on the table. Then they took him on the lab section which was not his agenda, because he wanted to see the studio. I told them, basically we have to show him the studio. So after that, without showing him proper studio, they took him to studios which were like barracks. He couldn’t even get down. He told me, ‘Nitin, your art is perfect but you want me to shoot in this kind of godowns. No way! In an international production, we have some norms.’ It was so embarrassing, not only me but [for] our industry and our country,” he said.

According to Desai, the film, Alexander (2004), had a budget of Rs650 crores and ended up filming in Morocco. It was India’s loss. But Desai was determined such an opportunity should not be lost again.

“I started my journey. From Mumbai to Pune, Mumbai to Nashik, Mumbai to Ahmedabad, I did my recces in these three directions. People used to tell me, we have this piece of land and I used to tell them, is there any overhead wire going, or is there any high-rise building? Because if you go to Film City now, it’s all surrounded,” Desai said of the initial days.

Eventually, one day, he found that piece of land to build his dream on.

Bombay recreated at ND Studios.
Courtesy: Nitin Desai

“It [had] a big banana tree, surrounded by mountains and it’s got a positive energy. [For] almost three and a half years, I [consulted] with my colleagues on their feelings. Everybody liked it,” he said. When I started in 2005, it was like levelling the land and taking all the permissions for the structures. After finishing all those things, we did our first shooting with Aamir Khan because I was doing Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005). We had one dargah sequence which we couldn’t find anywhere. So Aamir said, ‘Why not in your studio? We will build there.’”

With the support of Aamir Khan, the first film was shot at ND Studios and slowly but surely others who had worked Nitin Desai and knew his reputation for excellence came forward. Madhur Bhandarkar shot all of Traffic Signal (2007) at the studio while longtime collaborator Ashutosh Gowariker filmed much of Jodhaa Akbar (2008) at ND Studios when permissions to shoot the historical film in Agra were denied.

A set from Jodhaa Akbar (2008)
Courtesy: Nitin Desai

Recently Bhandarkar returned again to shoot his latest at ND Studios. “[For] Indu Sarkar (2017), we shot 86 locations in 42 days. That’s the way he managed to create this kind of film with a shoestring budget and everything,” Desai shares. The studio has all the facilities where the cast and crew can stay on location while the film is being made.

Besides film and TV shootings, which regularly go on at ND Studios, Nitin Desai also has plans to turn the studio into a place where the regular public can be a part of and experience the wonders of filmmaking. Desai has been several times to Universal Studios in Los Angeles, where his daughter is studying film and she is the one who took him on the tour of the lot.

He remembered thinking at the time, “What I realised is, they were showing all the sets and created each section – Batman was shot here, Back to the Future here. I said, ‘We have very big section than this, why can’t do that?’” Even when tourists stop by to see a film or television shooting, it is done in a controlled environment without breaking the flow of the shooting.

A set from Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015)
Courtesy: Nitin Desai

Desai wants to create that here at ND Studios but in a very unique, Indian way. “When you come to my studio, you come to the filmi world. Theme parks, in our country, have very different perceptions. These rides are killing the ambience. So we are not doing that. We are saying, if you come to our ticket window, you will find Ajit sitting there and he will say, ‘Mona darling, inko do ticket de dena [give them two tickets]’ and Gabbar Singh will ask, ‘Kitne aadmi the’. It has interesting characters and we will create a filmi mahol (environment).”

The area will have around six zones with almost 28 locations where fans can explore each visual delight. A wall featuring posters of 100 years of Indian cinema from Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra (1913) to the latest released film will be present. An entry wall will contain 20 feet sculptures of the icons of Indian cinema from V Shantaram to Satyajit Ray, like USA’s Mount Rushmore.

The town square, featuring Bollywood dancers, will contain many theme-based restaurants, from a jail to a court, and lucky fans can even run into a star who might be dining there. Visitors can even stay in a palace fit for a maharaja or experience village life under Shivaji Maharaj!

A village set at ND Studios (Courtesy: Nitin Desai)

Additionally, Desai plans to give young people a platform to showcase their talent in singing, dancing, comedy to challenge each other and perform in front of an audience. Desai said, “I think it’s a great opportunity for the youngsters to show their talent and then we will make a big group out of them and tour India and abroad and give them the proper [exposure].”

The park will open in the first phase to the public around November or December of this year and slowly, more attractions will open up every six months.

Incredibly, besides all this, Nitin Desai is also part of a scheme to encourage skill development along with the government’s Kaushalya Vikas program. He stated, “How long will it continue in our country saying this is the kind of labour we get or the infrastructure? We have to start. I started this almost nine months back, and we’ve done two batches till now of carpentry, welding fabrication, molding, hairstyling and all – the courses have started at ND Studios. The people from the surrounding areas, plus people from Mumbai, Pune, Nashik till Konkan will be invited.”

A grand palace at ND Studios. (Courtesy: Nitin Desai)

Even at ND Studios, Desai’s main aim is to bring forward the artistes who have been toiling away behind the curtain and show the public how film sets are created. “Each artist wants to be appreciated. We are that concerned with money but if you tell us what excellent work you’ve done, we’ll work for ten days straight without food and water, that much quality and passion is there in an artist. All my artists who are currently hidden, I want to bring them to the forefront so people can see them and appreciate them. He should have his own name and do more work. Kala tabhi badhti hai jab logon ko zyaada se zyaada appreciation ho [Art grows when people appreciate it more and more],” he said.

All of the sets he has created over the years, he has kept something from it with him – a bit of film history. When Desai says he can create a palace in one week, he is not saying it lightly. He has all the resources and planning to make that happen. But he humbly remarked, “I am trying. I am a small artiste who is trying to think big.”

Desai with a few of the awards he's been honoured with over the years.
Courtesy: Nitin Desai

Desai is also planning to embark on a film institute for those youngsters who can’t afford an international film education. He declared, “I have requested all my colleagues that we are doing this and I want that whatever we’ve learnt, we distribute it amongst the new generation. We give them a chance to get ahead. Let’s give it back to the industry.”

Handling so many projects, Nitin Desai doesn’t look back at what he’s achieved. He keeps moving ahead. Desai is grateful for all that he has received from the industry and is doing his best to pay it forward.

“I don’t think about what I’ve done. God has given us one life and I’m lucky enough that I became an artist, and more lucky that I came in the film industry. If God says I want to give you seven lives, I will say only give me them if I can be [involved] with art and the film industry,” he said.